At the Microsoft Ignite conference, the company's Alex Kipman unveiled a new hologram-based mixed-reality communication platform called Microsoft Mesh. This thing is jaw-dropping. Its most basic purpose is allowing people in different physical locations to join a shared environment, with 3D capture technology creating a hologram of each person therein (a process Microsoft insists on calling 'holoportation'), all running atop the company's cloud platform Azure.
There's some forgiveable exagerration at points in the above precis of the Ignite presentation (no, this is not 'teleporting' people), but it showcases the potential for this technology far beyond mere business meetings. A family watching huge shoals of fish on the ocean floor, the software highlighting certain species with information as the father points (yes the world is becoming a video game). Engineers and mechanics messing around with hologrammatic equipment, finger-controlled UI overlays altering the working environment and a car engine's internal parts. Medical students learning in an operating theatre can, apparently, "peel back muscles to see what’s underneath" (though one might hope they'd have some idea already).
Many technologies currently exist that enable collaboration across distance, of course, but what seems special about Mesh is the physical aspect, what presumably feels like the actual presence of other human beings in your proximity. On which note, you do have the option to appear as 'yourself' or as a customised avatar.
“This has been the dream for mixed reality, the idea from the very beginning,” says Alex Kipman. “You can actually feel like you’re in the same place with someone sharing content or you can teleport from different mixed reality devices and be present with people even when you’re not physically together.”
Perhaps the most impressive early example is a partnership with OceanX, a company dedicated to exploring the unexplored, which has seen a "hologrammatic lab" built on the OceanXplorer, which is already the most advanced research vessel on the waves. Scientists on the vessel will be able to use the Mesh platform in-sync with the vessel's exploratory submarines, and scientists not on the vessel will be able to join.
"The idea is to take all this amazing scientific data we’re collecting and bring it into a holographic setting and use it as a way to guide scientific missions in real time," says Vincent Pieribone, vice chairman of OceanX.
Rays of light simulating your physical body and stroking hologrammatic whales is definitely some part of the future we were promised, though of course Mesh incorporates an enormous amount of other Microsoft research in areas like hand / eye tracking, the HoloLens hardware itself, and the feature-rich juggernaut that is Azure.
“More and more we are building value in our intelligent cloud,” Kipman says. “In these collaborative experiences, the content is not inside my device or inside my application. The holographic content is in the cloud, and I just need the special lenses that allow me to see it.”
Microsoft Mesh is not limited to HoloLens users, but will work across VR headsets, smartphones, tablets and PC. The Ignite announcement was accompanied by the launch of two apps: the Microsoft Mesh app for HoloLens is available now, and allows people to gather in a shared space. There is also a business-focused version called AltspaceVR, built with the kind of security and scheduling features that companies require.
Finally, you might wonder about games. Microsoft didn't really focus on this aspect of mixed-reality, though it briefly had a cameo from Niantic CEO and founder John Hanke who showed a proof-of-concept Pokémon GO experience in Mesh.
Niantic was at pains to emphasise this does not represent an incoming consumer product (just as well, because next to everything else on show here it's pretty basic). However the two companies are collaborating on unannounced projects for the technology.
There will be much more to say about Mesh, and you can read more on Microsoft's site or check out Satya Nadella's keynote here. All I can say is: wow. Every so often you see a piece of tech and it's clear that you've just caught a glimpse of the future, now.